Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's commissioner-elect, says he played an administrative "support role" in the television-rights fee dispute between the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals, reviewing evidence and trying without success to steer the bickering neighbors toward a settlement.
But the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, controlled by the Orioles, contends that Manfred was far more aggressive and one-sided, and is seeking documents in a New York court hearing scheduled for Monday to try to bolster its case.
The documents MASN seeks include communications that Manfred or other baseball officials might have had with members of an arbitration panel that ordered the network in June to pay the Nationals $20 million a year more for the rights to show the team's games. The Orioles own a majority stake in MASN, which broadcasts both teams' games and pays the clubs rights fees.
MASN also wants access to records of who attended the meetings and deliberations of the panel — called the Revenue Sharing Definitions Committee, or RSDC — which was composed of the owners of the New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays.
Manfred, who is now Major League Baseball's chief operating officer and will succeed Bud Selig as commissioner in January, said in a recent court affirmation that the committee members "exercised their own independent judgment. Neither I, nor the commissioner, nor anyone else in the commissioner's office attempted to or did dictate the result."
In August, the New York Supreme Court blocked the committee's decision from taking effect while it considers the matter. Final arguments in the case are expected in March.
MASN alleges that the committee — under the "dominance and control" of Manfred and other baseball officials — applied the wrong standards in deciding that the Nationals should receive about $60 million in TV rights fees per year. Since MASN now pays $40 million annually, the network would owe the Washington team about $20 million more by the end of the year.
"Confronted by MASN's evidence that MLB and Mr. Manfred were involved in virtually every aspect of the arbitral process, including the drafting of the award, MLB tacks and sails to the wind, now describing Mr. Manfred and his office as akin to a 'law clerk' to the RSDC," MASN lawyers said in a Nov. 25 motion asking Judge Lawrence Marks to order release of the documents.
The league says the documents amount to "inadmissible evidence" about the panel's internal proceedings.
Attorneys are expected to argue the matter during Monday's hearing.
The latest court filings have made Manfred a visible figure in the Orioles-Nationals dispute, which Selig had long hoped to avoid. Selig had threatened sanctions if the clubs went to court rather than resolving their differences under baseball's procedures.
MASN's central argument is that the baseball committee was never truly neutral.
"The standard model is there is a neutral way to select an arbitrator who then rules independently," said Stephen Ross, a law professor at Pennsylvania State University. "If you can show some sort of improper influence or bias, you can succeed in overturning the arbitral award."
The wrinkle in the Orioles-Nationals case, Ross said, is that there was an "unusual form of arbitration because the arbitrators are in-house."
The three club owners were selected by Selig. MASN says the process was tainted because the same outside counsel — the New York-based law firm Proskauer Rose — represented the Nationals, Major League Baseball and the three teams represented on the panel on various matters during the arbitration process.
Proskauer Rose's legal work for the league dates to 1999, according to court documents. The firm represented the Nationals when the case came before the committee.
"As an academic, I do not understand why MLB would allow one of its major outside law firms to represent one of its member clubs in a huge dispute with another of its member clubs," Ross said. "I don't understand why you would want this controversy."
MASN has likened the circumstance to a lawyer representing a client "before a tribunal wherein the lawyer also represents the judge and jury."
A spokesman for Major League Baseball declined to comment, referring a reporter to documents filed by its lawyers. In one such document, the attorneys said MASN never went to court during the fee dispute seeking to disqualify Proskauer or any committee member.
"Proskauer in no way corrupted the RSDC proceeding," Proskauer attorney Bradley Ruskin said in a court affirmation. "The MASN and Orioles' allegations distort and/or ignore the factual record, which actually suggests that MASN and the Orioles chose late in the process to protest Proskauer's involvement as a tactical effort to manufacture a position to challenge any award MASN and/or the Orioles did not like."
Procedures for determining TV rights fees were brokered by the league when the Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, moved to Washington in 2005. Major League Baseball structured the agreement to benefit the Orioles — giving the team a bigger ownership stake in MASN and a proportionately larger share of the profits — after the team argued that the Nationals' arrival in the region deprived Baltimore of a third of its market.
The Nationals have argued since that they are locked into an agreement that deprives the team of the fair market value for its TV rights.
Consultant Lee H. Berke, president of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media, said the Baltimore-Washington region is large enough that there could be "a great opportunity for both these teams to have their own networks and develop financial and distribution opportunities that would adequately take care of each one."
"It's a shame they are going through this," Berke said.